Empowering the grassroots: The Use of ‘Primaries’ to select candidates for Parliamentary Elections in India


With the upcoming general elections in 2014 in India, the battle has begun – the battle to get that elusive “ticket” from the “party”. Most young, eligible potential politically inclined people are however unable to get the “ticket” because the party high command – no matter which party we are talking about – will give the ticket to the candidate “it” thinks will win, or the candidate “it” thinks it has to give the ticket to, due to other considerations. This often also leads to the granting of tickets to “tainted” candidates or those who have criminal records. As a result, the Indian populace often goes to the polls to elect the “lesser evil.” So often, you end up hearing the refrain – “they’re all the same” or that “how can a country of a billion not produce better leaders?”

Recently, the Supreme Court of India directed the Election Commission of India to introduce a “None of the Above” (NOTA) button on electronic voting machines (EVMs) to enable voters to reject all candidates contesting an election. The logic behind this directive is to force the political parties to not nominate tainted candidates (check out video here). The SC bench argued that “negative voting would gradually lead to systemic changes as political parties will have to respect the will of the people in selecting their candidates.” Some proponents of this move are still unsatisfied because this still doesn’t constitute an effective “right to reject” and it seems the SC judgement left a lot of details to be worked out (read more details here).

However, I would argue that even if this was extended to give Indian voters the complete “right to reject”, this will not really change the incentives of parties significantly enough to change the way candidates get the party tickets. A deepening of power down to the grassroots has to be instituted within political parties, and I believe the introduction of the “Primary” system offers potentially the best alternative to several different methods being tried by political parties to find the candidates with the highest “winnability” factor.


I haven’t found much academic research online about this process, except for an audio recording of a lecture given by Adnan Farooqui which describes the process deployed by the two national parties – the BJP and the Congress – and the key organizational committees and actors that determine the final selection.

Currently, for most recognized national political parties, the norm for selection of candidates seems to be the following: “the national party organs completely control the selection of candidates for the national elections while the subnational party organs send their proposed names to the former which ultimately decides who would get the ticket.” The parties, in several cases, do tend to rely on rigorous research (e.g., surveys, observers sent to each constituency, etc.) as well as extensive deliberations between different parts of the party apparatus to determine who the right candidates would be.

According to Farooqui, the considerations used by the national party organs vary across parties. As he points out, for some parties, caste considerations are paramount while for others it might be money. It seems that at the end of the day some combination of a diverse range of factors – money, religion or caste of the candidate (vis a vis the religion/caste composition of the constituency), winnability, recognition of the work for the party, coalition compulsions (due to party alliances in that state), satisfying different factions represented by important state-level leaders, etc. – are taken into account by all parties.


Interestingly enough, however, I think there are some movements and trends in India towards the democratization of the nomination process as well. While the use of surveys in decision-making can be considered as a form of giving power to the voice of the grassroots (example: selection of Harsh Vardhan as BJP’s Delhi CM nominee, top leaders presumably still continue to have the final word as the same article demonstrates).

The starkest example I have seen so far of a party moving towards a primary system is that of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP – the Common Man’s Party) which has instituted a process of live debates and voting on potential AAP candidates before they are finally given the party ticket. The final decision, however, is still retained by the AAP top brass.

Taking a leaf from the AAP’s book, the BJP recently asked its workers to nominate people for party tickets from their constituencies. A senior BJP leader justified this move as this: ““It was felt that the grassroots workers were feeling left out from candidate selection process. This exercise is a way by which the workers can have their say in the process. The entire exercise will be carried out through secret ballot.” At the same time, “the sealed packet containing the names [would] be sent to Gadkari’s office and a final decision will then be taken”, suggesting that this isn’t quite a move to move the decision-making power to the grassroots; rather it is simply a way to get inputs from the cadres. In any case, it seems that the BJP’s attempt at a “secret ballot” system of allowing a certain number of observers (14, in this case) to determine the top 3 shortlisted candidates has (if media reports are to be believed) flopped though the reasons do not seem clear.

Of course, Rahul Gandhi has for several years been openly trying to democratize the grand old party of India (The Indian National Congress) by holding elections for party positions at the local and state levels. Most recently, in the run up to the Assembly elections in several states in December, he seems to have added a few layers to the process of selection – namely, a five-page application form that “requires ticket-seekers to answer questions mostly related to social, political and demographic issues in the constituency where the applicant hopes to contest elections.” These forms will be filled out by Congress party observers on the basis of the information provided by the candidates, and then  submitted to the Congress party’s local-level officers who will then send their recommendation to the party’s central leadership. While the party is saying that the State-level units will have a decisive say, it seems the party’s central leadership still retains the final say as per this article and this one which suggests that despite the best intentions, the decisions end up being taken by the high command.

For the upcoming state elections in Delhi, Sheila Dikshit has announced that there would be more “this time there will be more grassroots involvement in the process” of selection of candidates. This does not mean that state party members would be involved in deciding, though the state election committee itself would have a little more discretion in the shortlisting of candidates this time around before the list is sent to the AICC Screening Committee. A similar article outlines the Congress’ selection process in Rajasthan this time around. The jury is still out on whether these processes have been executed well or not, and whether in-fighting and intra-party differences will get resolved satisfactorily.


An interesting way to resolve the problem of identifying the candidates with the highest “winnability” would be to introduce the system of “primaries” as a way to select candidates who wish to run on a party’s ticket for the Parliamentary elections. (Of course this proposal could be extended to the state and local elections as well). What would this entail?

This would essentially mean that before anyone in any constituency of India gets the “party ticket” – let’s say for the Indian National Congress or for BJP or any other party –  they would have to fight out the primary elections at the constituency level. During the primary elections, multiple candidates would campaign for the party’s nomination. A group of members of that party residing in that constituency would be eligible to vote for the candidates at the primary level (a “closed primary” system). The winner of the primary election would then be nominated as the party’s candidate for MP in the general elections.

Its important to keep in mind that the countries that do use the primary system, most famously the U.S., did not start off with such a system of nominating candidates. While the detailed history is described in the Green Papers, it was only at the turn of the century (so about a 100 years ago) that the system in the U.S. changed from being very similar to the existing Indian system to the “primaries” system which in turn empowered the grassroot political party or caucus member in the U.S. The nominating system, as it exists now, is described here, along with the pros and cons of “closed primaries” vs “open primaries.” You can read more about “primaries” as they are used in other countries across the world.

The primary system, I believe, will offer significant advantages: 1) Will reduce the power that has hitherto been concentrated in the hands of a few and distribute it across all the party members in a given constituency; 2) WIll encourage greater participation at the grassroots level; 3) Reduce in-fighting by taking the power away (at least to some extent) from the various state-level leaders; and most importantly, 4) Will give a winning chance to new candidates to get nominated on the party ticket even if they don’t have strong connections to the national party organs.

I recognize that this obviously will be considered as “wishful thinking” by most knowledgeable analysts of Indian politics today. The core reason that the national/ central organs of the national political parties today would not want to lose their decision making power (and potentially their ability to make $$$ from their position), nor would the state-level leaders. The selection of candidates is already a big source of in-fighting in political parties (see examples of in-fighting in Delhi and Rajasthan in the INC due to this issue), so I doubt this transition and ceding of power would be a simple process. It can be argued that often party leaders are awarding tickets as “favors” even though they know the candidate is not a winning horse – which suggests that winnability is not always the primary factor in any case. In addition, implementing this system would increase the administrative burden on any given party to select candidates in a significant way.

At the same time, I do not see a better option of really opening the floodgates to new, ambitious, hard-working, honest political leaders in India who come up to the top on the basis of their merit (and not connections to the central party committees). It will also force aspirants to really focus on working on building up support amongst all the party members and not just the party high command. This in turn will mean that the aspirants will really have to rally up support in their constituencies, which I think will lead to an improved understanding of the people’s needs and hopefully a better capacity to help meet these needs in the future.


Despite some recent positive developments, it is by no means inevitable that India will go toward the primary system – the way the U.S. did. I imagine it will require a significant movement – most likely a grassroots-led movement – that demands greater power for the local members of the party in deciding candidates. That said, it might also need a champion at the top of the pyramid (someone like a Rahul Gandhi or a Arvind Kejriwal) to really push such a system forward. Devolving more power to the State Level Committees is a good first step, but ultimately, leaders like Gandhi and Kejriwal would do well to really give up some of the power to the people that make up their party cadre, if they really want to find the candidates with the highest “winnability” quotient.


Photo credit: Times of India

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